Wil­helm Richard Wag­n­er was born in Leipzig on 22 May, 1813 and died in Venice on 13 Feb­ru­ary, 1883. Der Fliegende Hol­län­der (The Fly­ing Dutch­man) was writ­ten to the composer’s own libret­to. His first sketch­es for the work date from 1840 with the music com­posed dur­ing the fol­low­ing year. The last part to be scored was the famous Over­ture which Wag­n­er com­plet­ed in Novem­ber 1841 though the opera had to wait until Jan­u­ary 2, 1843 for its pre­mier which took place in Dres­den at the Roy­al Court The­atre under the composer’s direc­tion. The famous sopra­no Wil­helmine Schröder-Devri­ent was Sen­ta (she had cre­at­ed the role of Adri­ano in Wagner’s Rien­zi just a few months before, and would lat­er be the first Venus in Tannhäuser). Wag­n­er had orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived the work as one large act, but then broke it into three.  He tin­kered with the score on sev­er­al occa­sions between 1846 and 1860, most­ly revis­ing the orches­tra­tion which he thought was too heavy. The opera is scored for pic­co­lo (Act III requires three pic­co­los), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, Eng­lish horn, 2 clar­inets, 2 bas­soons, 2 valve horns, 2 nat­ur­al horns (the com­posers asks for 6 horns off­stage in Act I), 2 nat­ur­al trum­pets, 2 valve trum­pets, 3 trom­bones, tuba, tim­pani, tam-tam, wind machine, harp and the usu­al string sec­tion.

Like Ver­di (Nabuc­co), Puc­ci­ni (Manon Lescaut) and Strauss (Salome) Richard Wag­n­er hit his first oper­at­ic home­run with his third opera, Rien­zi, a sprawl­ing five-act Grand Opera which pre­miered in Dres­den on Octo­ber 20, 1842. Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies) was fin­ished in 1834 but nev­er per­formed dur­ing the composer’s life­time (it pre­miered in Munich in 1888). Attempt num­ber two was Das Liebesver­bot (The Ban on Love). This one actu­al­ly saw the light of day — Wag­n­er con­duct­ed two per­for­mances in Magde­burg in 1836, the same year Meyerberr’s Les Huguenots pre­miered — before dis­ap­pear­ing. Lis­ten­ing to a CD of Liebesver­bot today it is impos­si­ble to hear any­thing of the com­pos­er Wag­n­er would become in this ear­ly work, which could have been writ­ten by any of the dozens of opera com­posers who were churn­ing out new works for provin­cial the­aters at the time. Apart from a very occa­sion­al moment here and there the inof­fen­sive music is total­ly unmem­o­rable; cer­tain­ly if the composer’s name was not Richard Wag­n­er there would be no rea­son to dust off the score after those first per­for­mances.

Dres­den’s opera house before it burned in 1849.

But with Rien­zi Wag­n­er final­ly came up with a crowd pleas­er hav­ing pat­terned the work after Meyer­beer who was The Com­pos­er of The Day. Today Rien­zi is pri­mar­i­ly remem­bered by its Over­ture and the Act V aria “Allmächt’ger Vater” (also known as “Rienzi’s Prayer”) as well as for the sneer­ing bon mots it inspired in gen­er­a­tions of crit­ics: “The best opera Meyer­beer did not com­pose,” as one put it. Anoth­er took the oppo­site tack, label­ing it “Meyer­beer worst opera.” But whether Meyerbeer’s best or worst, Reinzi is cer­tain­ly Wagner’s nois­i­est opera. The sprawl­ing score is crammed with an aston­ish­ing num­ber of pro­ces­sions, calls to arms, fan­fares, cho­rus­es (for every con­ceiv­able com­bi­na­tion of voic­es) and, of course, the oblig­a­tory Act II bal­let which was de rigueur for any Grand Opera of the peri­od.

Wag­n­er could not seem to make up his mind how he real­ly felt about his ear­li­est suc­cess. He usu­al­ly count­ed his major works begin­ning with opera num­ber four, Der fliegende Hol­län­der, and was dis­mis­sive of Rien­zi, not includ­ing it in the works to be per­formed at Bayreuth, but there is evi­dence he revis­it­ed the score, plan­ning major cuts in it, with a eye to giv­ing it at Bayreuth. (Noth­ing came of the plan.)

But Rien­zi has always had its par­ti­sans, among them no less a great musi­cian than Gus­tav Mahler who con­duct­ed a major revival of the work in Vien­na in 1901. Accord­ing to Mahler’s biog­ra­ph­er, Hen­ry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler felt Rien­zi had been unjust­ly neglect­ed. “If you look at it as grand opera, the genre to which it belongs, it’s hard to imag­ine any­thing more effec­tive. What dra­mat­ic pow­er it has!” Mahler said. The Vien­nese pub­lic tend­ed to agree and the revival was a huge suc­cess. It was giv­en eight times in 1908 and sev­er­al times each sea­son up until 1918. (The San Fran­cis­co Opera has nev­er staged the work and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera has not done it since 1890.) Crit­ic Edward Hanslick regard­ed Rien­zi as the col­lec­tive work of Spon­ti­ni, Donizetti, Mayer­beer, Weber and Marschn­er, rather than of Wag­n­er — which seems an accu­rate assess­ment.

Maz Lorenz as Rien­zi

The role of Rien­zi calls for a hero­ic tenor voice — the first of what would be a num­ber of Wag­ner­ian operas writ­ten for a helden­tenor and which suf­fer from the fact that such voic­es are almost nonex­is­tent. Most record­ings of Rien­zi have lighter-voiced tenors in the part (and usu­al­ly a voice at the end of a career spent singing roles too heavy for it.) But there is a CD of major excerpts, record­ed in 1941, with the great helden­tenor Max Lorenz as Rien­zi, which gives an idea of how Wag­n­er must have assumed his hero would sound on stage. It makes a per­sua­sive case for the opera.

One of the great mys­ter­ies in opera is how Wag­n­er, seem­ly so at home with Rien­zi’s Grand Opera form, could then turn around and imme­di­ate­ly write a work like The Fly­ing Dutch­man which seemed so dif­fer­ent in every way from opera up to that point.

It is impos­si­ble to tell exact­ly when Wag­n­er first thought of writ­ing an opera based on the leg­end of the sailor con­demned by super­nat­ur­al forces to sail the seas for­ev­er. It is a sto­ry he must have heard as a boy, and more than like­ly he stum­bled on some of the numer­ous print­ed ver­sions which were so pop­u­lar in the ear­ly Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry. Read­ing Hein­rich Heine’s short sto­ry “The Tale of the Fly­ing Dutch­man” (pub­lished in 1834 in Mem­o­rien des Her­ren von Schn­abele­wop­s­ki) cer­tain­ly helped crys­tal­lize his thoughts about turn­ing the leg­end into a opera (though lat­er in life Wag­n­er tried to play down the influ­ence Heine’s account had on his opera.) As so often was the case in Wagner’s oper­at­ic out­put, a dra­mat­ic even in his own life played a large part in the cre­ation of The Fly­ing Dutch­man.

Wag­n­er as a young man

In the Spring of 1839 Wag­n­er learned he was to lose his post of con­duc­tor at the the­ater in Riga. Fed up with life in the provinces, he decid­ed to try his luck in Paris, but get­ting the nec­es­sary pass­port would mean print­ing his inten­tion to leave town in the local paper — which would let all his numer­ous cred­i­tors know his plans. Unable to pay his bills (not an unusu­al sit­u­a­tion for Wag­n­er) the com­pos­er, his wife Min­na, and their New­found­land dog, Rob­ber, slipped over the board­er in the dead of night, and even­tu­al­ly onto a boat, the Thetis, which was to take them to Copen­hagen, then Lon­don and even­tu­al­ly Paris.

What should have been a voy­age of a few days turned into a night­mare last­ing three and a half weeks. Buf­fet­ed by numer­ous storms which more than once threat­ened to wreck the small ship, they at last found shel­ter off the coast of Nor­way, which Wag­n­er described as mak­ing “one of the most mar­velous and most beau­ti­ful impres­sions of my life. What I had tak­en to be a con­tin­u­ous line of cliffs turned out on our approach to be a series of sep­a­rate rocks pro­ject­ing from the sea,” he lat­er wrote in My Life. “Hav­ing sailed past them we per­ceived that we were sur­round­ed, not only in front and at the sides, but also at our back, by these reefs….At the same time the hur­ri­cane was so bro­ken by the rocks at our rear that the fur­ther we sailed through this ever-chang­ing labyrinth of pro­ject­ing rocks, the calmer the sea became, until at last the vessel’s progress was per­fect­ly smooth and qui­et as we entered one of those long sea-roads run­ning through a giant ravine — for such the Nor­we­gian fjords appeared to me.

A feel­ing of inde­scrib­able con­tent came over me when the enor­mous gran­ite walls echoed the hail of the crew as the cast anchor and furled in sails. The sharp rhythm of this call clung to me like an omen of good cheer, and shaped itself present­ly into the theme of the seamen’s song in my Fliegen­der Hol­län­der. The idea of this opera was, even at that time, ever present in my mind, and it now took on a def­i­nite poet­ic and musi­cal col­or under the influ­ence of my recent impres­sions.”

Pierre-Louis Dietsch

Once in Paris Wag­n­er dis­cov­ered storm­ing the citadel of the Paris Opera was not an easy task, and he was quick­ly reduced to eking out a liv­ing with hack work. It was through the efforts of Meyer­beer that Wag­n­er was approached by the Paris Opera to pro­vide the sce­nario of a one-act opera to be giv­en as a cur­tain rais­er to a bal­let. Wag­n­er quick­ly came up with a prose draft, in French, of the Fly­ing Dutch­man leg­end. After months of wait­ing Wag­n­er learned, in sum­mer 1841, the direc­tor of the Opera want­ed to buy the prose sketch but was not inter­est­ed in Wag­n­er pro­vid­ing the music. Wag­n­er was furi­ous, but need­ed the promised 500 francs (things were so des­per­ate that even his dog had run off). Even­tu­al­ly a com­pos­er named Pierre-Louis Dietsch pro­vid­ed the music for Le vais­seau fan­tôme which was not a suc­cess. (Inci­den­tal­ly it was Dietsch who con­duct­ed the dis­as­trous per­for­mances of Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861.)

Wag­n­er recast the work into Ger­man and began work­ing away on his own opera — orig­i­nal­ly set in Scot­land. He fin­ished the music (but not the orches­tra­tion) in sev­en weeks dur­ing that sum­mer. By Decem­ber he had fin­ished the score and sent it off to the Berlin Court Opera where Meyer­beer, once again, had put in a good word for Wag­n­er and his lat­est opera. It was accept­ed in ear­ly 1842 and with Rien­zi slat­ed for its pre­mier in Dres­den and Dutch­man accept­ed in Berlin, Wag­n­er and his wife returned to Ger­many, full of opti­mism.

Wil­helmine Schroed­er-Devri­ent, the first Sen­ta

But there were end­less delays in the Berlin the­ater, and even the tri­umphant of Rien­zi in Dres­den could not seem to get Dutch­man on the Berlin stage. At his wits end, Wag­n­er demand­ed the score back and Dres­den saw the pre­mier of its sec­ond Wag­n­er opera in slight­ly over two months. Dutch­man was as big a flop as Rien­zi had been a suc­cess. There were sev­er­al rea­sons — the singer who played the Dutch­man, Johann Michael Wächter, was sim­ply not up to the part; the sets were not cre­at­ed for Dutch­man but pulled from a vari­ety of exist­ing pro­duc­tions and did lit­tle to cre­ate the atmos­phere so cru­cial for the new work. But main­ly, the prob­lem was the audi­ence was expect­ing a new Rien­zi. What they got instead was the first of Wagner’s major works, a true “music dra­ma” that was ahead of its time.

The music Richard Wag­n­er wrote for The Fly­ing Dutch­man seemed very new at the time of the work’s pre­mier — though Wag­n­er would of course go far beyond it dur­ing the course of his career. But Dutch­man was root­ed firm­ly in oper­at­ic his­to­ry, begin­ning with Mon­tever­di and con­tin­u­ing through Mozart and Weber.

One of the rea­sons Monteverdi’s Orfeo cre­at­ed such a sen­sa­tion in 1607 was because the com­pos­er had used such a unusu­al­ly large, diverse num­ber of instru­ments which inten­si­fied the dra­ma. Orfeo’s great aria “Pos­sente spir­i­to,” for instance, was accom­pa­nied first by vio­lins (bowed strings), then cor­nets (wind/brass) and final­ly harps (plucked strings) — imply­ing that Orfeo called on all the forces of music to aid his plea to the gods. Using instru­ments not only for their innate tonal col­or but also sym­bol­i­cal­ly — to imply addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion to the audi­ence – was some­thing the aris­to­crat­ic audi­ence at the time would under­stand. Giv­ing the audi­ence addi­tion­al dra­mat­ic infor­ma­tion through the orches­tra would become a hall­mark of Wagner’s work.

Though any good opera com­pos­er uses music to delin­eate char­ac­ter, Mozart went a step fur­ther and some­times lets us know — though his orches­tra — what he thinks of the char­ac­ter. For instance, in Così fan tutte, the music that accom­pa­nies Fiordiligi’s aria “Come scoglio,” dur­ing which she vehe­ment­ly denies she could ever be attract­ed to any­one but her fiancé, clear­ly shows Mozart thinks “the lady doth protest too much.” From the pompous, har­mon­i­cal­ly emp­ty open­ing chords of the entire orches­tra, which are imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by the vio­lins play­ing a quick, imp­ish piano melod­ic frag­ment — the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of stick­ing their tongues out behind her back — Mozart’s orches­tra com­ments on, and pokes fun at, the sopra­no. As the aria draws to its con­clu­sion, Mozart writes gig­gling eighth-note triplets for the vio­lins and vio­las, which spread like uncon­trol­lable laugh­er to the low­er strings and final­ly to the wood­winds as the whole orches­tra erupts in glee. This use of the orches­tra to let the audi­ence know how it should feel about what was hap­pen­ing on stage was some­thing Wag­n­er would do as a mat­ter of course, begin­ning with Dutch­man.

Wag­n­er called Weber’s Der Freis­chütz “the most Ger­man of all operas.” Cer­tain­ly it is the embod­i­ment of all the char­ac­ter­is­tics found in Ger­man Roman­tic opera which audi­ences today asso­ciate pri­mar­i­ly with Wag­n­er: plots draw from fair tales, myths or medieval his­to­ry and involv­ing the super­nat­ur­al and Nature, not in a dec­o­ra­tive way but as an essen­tial ele­ment of the plot; human char­ac­ters are in some sense agents or rep­re­sen­ta­tives of super­nat­ur­al forces, whether for good or evil; and the even­tu­al tri­umph of good over evil is often inter­pret­ed in almost reli­gious terms of redemp­tion or sal­va­tion.

In the Wolf’s Glen Scene of Freis­chütz the orchestra’s depic­tion of the hap­pen­ings on stage had nev­er before been real­ized to such an astound­ing extent — whether it was bird flap­ping their wings, black boars dart­ing about or storms and hur­ri­canes sud­den­ly being con­jured by super­nat­ur­al forces as flames erupt from the earth itself — it was all there in Weber’s orches­tra.  Though today when Freis­chütz is so sel­dom see in the U.S. most Amer­i­can opera lovers are like­ly to think, “It’s just like Wag­n­er!” even though Freis­chütz pre­dates Dutch­man by more than 20 years.

The explo­sive Dutch­man duo of Leonie Rysanek and George Lon­don

But it is not only Wagner’s vivid depic­tion of the storm at sea in the Over­ture to The Fly­ing Dutch­man that makes this opera the har­bin­ger of his future work. The score abounds with numer­ous “first” instances of char­ac­ter­is­tics that would become his hall­marks. When Daland and the Dutch­man first meet, Wagner’s music imme­di­ate­ly delin­eates the dif­fer­ence between the bluff, hearty Daland and the world-weary, despair­ing Dutch­man. In only a few mea­sures Wag­n­er deft­ly depicts the two men and their indi­vid­ual worlds in such a clear way that the audi­ence can­not fail to feel the dif­fer­ence emo­tion­al­ly.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Wagner’s mature work is its manip­u­la­tive­ness, the fact that Wag­n­er adopt­ed his own pace for the unfold­ing of the sto­ry and forces the audi­ence to enter his world — or spend the time fight­ing it. Again and again, Wagner’s char­ac­ters look at each oth­er, motion­less, while the orches­tra lets us know what is hap­pen­ing in the char­ac­ters’ souls. The first time this hap­pens in all of Wagner’s work is in Dutch­man when the title char­ac­ter meets Sen­ta. The fact that Sen­ta and the Dutch­man are off in their own, super­nat­ur­al, world is empha­sized by their ignor­ing Daland while he intro­duces the two and urges his daugh­ter to con­sid­er mar­ry­ing the Dutch­man. “But nei­ther speaks,” Daland final­ly says. “Am I not want­ed here?” And when he leaves the music, which has vac­il­lat­ed between the real, every­day world of Daland, and the pri­vate world of Sen­ta and the Dutch­man, final­ly dis­solves into the first of those instances in Wagner’s work when time itself stops and we enter the realm of the soul. Noth­ing like it had been heard in opera before.

No won­der the Dres­den audi­ence was baf­fled that night in 1843. The mag­ic is still effec­tive 160 years lat­er.

A slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.